Q&A with Kindle Single authors Adam Piore, Erika Hayasaki and Marc Herman discussion

How and Why We Wrote a Kindle Single

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc | 5 comments Mod
We're starting the discussion here, on Monday...but post questions whenever you'd like.

message 2: by Marc (new)

Marc | 5 comments Mod
So. The motivation for this discussion is the shocking number of curious emails I received after publishing The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on reporting I did for The Atlantic in Libya last year. The questions were not about Libya. They were about the process of creating a piece of non-fiction for the Singles program -- the financing, production, reporting, and marketing. Some questions came by email, some came via interviews. Interest from media and tech press helped. Eventually, I started a blog to answer the questions:

A few weeks later, I got an email from Erika, who also wrote a single and teaches journalism at UC Irvine in California. I spoke to one of her classes, again about process as much as content, and came to the conclusion that there was still enough interest to host a small roundtable.

At which point my internet died. I live in Spain, and things move slowly here, and two weeks passed, and here we are. We're hoping the questions we've received elsewhere, can lead to a good discussion here about the how, why, and what of this new/old sort of journalism. Multimedia will increasingly play a part. So will players other than Amazon. It's the start of something, so we figure, best tease out some of the implications, and share some of the nuts and bolts.

Alright then. Ask whatever you like.

message 3: by Alan (new)

Alan (alanerapp) | 1 comments Hi. Like a number of people interested in this discussion, I've had experience with both print and online publications. When speculating on the future of publishing that I work in primarily (visual/photography books), I've noted that regardless of the medium, distribution is still key.
So with the Single concept, which in concept and length seem to straddle the lines between book and article, does the future rely on distribution through a centralized platform with a strong consumer identity such as Amazon? Could you three authors have produced these works without the Single program? or do you foresee that possibility down the road?
I'm wondering about the atomization of ebook publishing in the sense of organizations, university programs, research tanks, etc. producing their own publication programs without the need of a major consumer publishing brand behind them.

message 4: by Marc (last edited Jun 22, 2012 01:23AM) (new)

Marc | 5 comments Mod
Right, suddenly authors/reporters find ourselves facing the internet's basic problem: the ratio of signal>>noise.

My suspicion is that one of the fundamental reasons Amazon and the Big Six publishers have ended up in conflict more often than collaboration recently is exactly this question of distribution and promotion. Amazon told readers that a story I wrote was signal, not noise. A book publisher can also do that for me, as can a magazine. Increasingly, they all compete to offer me that service. (pre-digital it was the other way around: authors competed to be picked by curators, as you know).

That shift, understandably, makes magazines and book publishers feel assailed, because it's a shift of market power and represents competition for material that may bring them earnings.

As the guy with the material -- the book of notes and the pictures -- my fundamental question becomes: who gets my work to more readers, at just enough of a price to be accessible to the audience, while keeping my little enterprise moving forward? In that sense the difference between something like Singles and a book publisher -- like the ones you work with -- is not so much. Both pay and distribute me pretty well. Sometimes they even do that together, still (a publisher gives me money, I produce a book, the publisher distributes it via Amazon as well as traditional bookstores).

Weighing distribution of journalism via Singles vs via a traditional magazine is a more complex question. Via Singles, distribution and marketing are much more closely linked than they are if I sell a story to a magazine, and the appeal of going it alone for magazine-ish scale work, abandoning the magazine format, is very real. Simply, a magazine markets itself -- read Time/GQ/Cosmo! -- where singles markets my specific story. Curation by a magazine (Our editors have granted Marc two dollars a word in fees and three of this month's 76 pages to display his efforts) is less beneficial to me than direct marketing of my own story. The question is whether my story reaches more readers placed in some fancy title like The Atlantic or National Geographic, which people seek for their good curation, than if picked and promoted by Amazon, which people seek mostly for ease of use.

What seems to be happening is Amazon is starting to be taken as seriously as long-standing editorial titles. My distributor (Amazon) marketed me simply by saying "this exists, and it's legit," and that was enough for several thousand people to spend two bucks.

Like you say, we're straddling the line between book and article in more than one way. In a sense, Amazon is acting like a book marketing department, but more like a magazine title. In the sense that I can say "I am Marc, from X Magazine," I now say "I am Marc, whose Single Amazon is backing." That seems to work for a journalist.

Would eliding distribution and marketing is such a fashion work for a fine art book, where Amazon would probably sound more like a distributor than a curator, right? People seem willing to accept Amazon as a curator of short stories and journalism, so far -- Singles is successful. Whether they accept Amazon curating art is a pretty big leap, though there is probably some splashover legitimacy to simply being in the bookstore. Essentially the old media legitimacy of simply saying "I was published." Presence on Amazon still seems to represent a curatorial step up from simply existing on the internet, though the more people use the uncurated Kindle self-publishing platform, presumably the more that impression will erode -- demanding another curatorial effort from Amazon, or an abandonment of curation in favor of just being a really useful warehouse. My two cents.

message 5: by Erika (last edited Jun 22, 2012 02:13PM) (new)

Erika Hayasaki | 1 comments Hi Alan,

Great questions. I have been discussing and thinking a lot of these topics with my literary journalism students at UC Irvine and so I have some thoughts:

To your first question: "Could you three authors have produced these works without the Single program? Or do you foresee that possibility down the road?"

I do not believe my story would have reached as many readers as it did without Kindle Singles. It involved first-person and science reporting around the sticky, and sometimes taboo topic of near-death experiences. The only place I pitched it to was Kindle Singles, partly because I had already been in conversation with its editor, David Blum, about another story idea. Blum is a journalist who was worked as an editor for the Village Voice, and he proved to be an excellent editor. At the time, I did not believe any magazine would have touched this 10,000-word story. (Although Salon.com came out with a good long research story on the subject about two months after mine: http://www.salon.com/2012/04/21/near_...).

I was surprised that Dead or Alive sold as well as it did (though other Kindle Single writers have done far better -- http://paidcontent.org/2012/03/12/419...). Mine has been downloaded around 6,000 times since February.

Question 2: "So with the Single concept, which in concept and length seem to straddle the lines between book and article, does the future rely on distribution through a centralized platform with a strong consumer identity such as Amazon?"

One mistake that I believe newspapers and magazines make when they enter into the E-Single market is not partnering with Amazon’s Kindle Singles, as The Atavist, Byliner and some other publications have smartly done. It seems editors at some longstanding, respected publications think they can slap a long story on Amazon as an e-book and sell thousands based on their name recognition alone. But I bet that’s not enough for them to see success — most stories will inevitably get lost among the millions of other titles. How will readers know they exist? The other mistake that these publications make is selling a story on Amazon that is already available for free online. How does that make marketing sense?

Like it or not, Amazon is a major marketing machine. The Kindle is a one-stop shopping center for people who like to read – the target audience. Just making it onto the Kindle Single storefront means readers are seeing your story, and this alone drives sales. I did no other promotion for my Kindle Single, besides sending a few emails, tweets and Facebook notes.

Yes, this means Amazon editors have a lot of power right now, deciding who gets past the gatekeepers. But I see other e-single markets emerging, like Apple “Quick Reads” and Barnes & Noble Nook “Snaps.” I am interested in seeing how longform journalism will be received in these markets too, even though I know Amazon is the major player at the moment. I have signed a contract to do my next longform nonfiction narrative story for Byliner Originals, which also has incredible editors and it markets across these companies. I would love to one day do one for The Atavist, which has set itself apart from the others with its multimedia elements.

Question 3: "I’m wondering about the atomization of ebook publishing in the sense of organizations, university programs, research tanks, etc. producing their own publication programs without the need of a major consumer publishing brand behind them."

What I love about the changing landscape of longform journalism in the digital age is that it is providing more opportunities for a diversity of stories on everything from near-death experiences, to Tripoli, to an accidental terrorist from Long Beach, Calif. Beyond that, the digital age is popularizing new lengths for stories — this 5,000 to 20,000-word niche.

Recently, Jonathan Karp, executive vice president and publisher of Simon and Schuster, was interviewed on C-SPAN about the future of books and ebooks, in which he said: “I wonder whether digital will result in some books being shorter and perhaps in longer form journalism having more of a place in the culture than it does right now. Magazines have cut back on their longer stories so maybe the publishing industry can step in there at the 20 to 40,000-word length. I hope that can happen.” (http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/30...).

From the perspective of someone who loves reading and writing longform journalism, this is all exciting stuff.

When it comes to organizations, programs and think-takes publishing their own stories, I think it’s important to note that longform pieces still need great editors, like the ones mentioned above. What gets lost in the excitement over the resurgence of longform journalism now, also with the popularity of #longreads or longform.org, is that these are often the most difficult kinds of stories to report and write. Just because it’s long, doesn’t mean it reads well. Good editors are essential. And reporters, when it comes to practicing longform, have to raise their game. It’s not just about grabbing a quote and writing a catchy lede or nutgraf. It is about unspooling a story with themes, characters, scenes and action. These pieces need texture and emotion. This is why producing longform journalism takes time and patience.

You will notice that many of the stories that sell well as Kindle Singles, besides the fiction, have to do with death, murder, crime, and Hollywood. This is the other complication with this rising genre. Less sexy topics are a harder sell. Does that mean they won’t sell? I don’t think so. Like all stories, I believe it will come down to the quality of the writing, reporting and presentation, and this means going back to studying some of the great literary journalists like John McPhee, these writers who often turned seemingly mundane topics into brilliant reads.

message 6: by Marc (new)

Marc | 5 comments Mod
Curious to see if Karp will put his money where his mouth is on that 20-40k word prediction?

message 7: by Molly (new)

Molly | 1 comments I'm curious about the editing process for Kindle Singles--do you approach them with the beginnings of a book, or an article that you want to develop into a longer piece? How do you handle the conflict between the book published and the Kindle folks? Are they disinclined to handle something that's been published in short form somewhere else?

message 8: by Marc (new)

Marc | 5 comments Mod
Sari wrote: "Any qualms about publishing though Amazon - cannibal that it appears to be?"

Personally, none. Because:
1) if I publish through a major publisher, it goes to Amazon anyway. It reminds me of the mid-90s angst over Barnes and Noble killing the community bookstore: on a tour, you read in both though, right?
2)Amazon is currently taking a more aggressive stance on this sort of format, length, etc, than is any other company with that sort of reach. I can´t pitch story ideas to Apple. I can´t pitch 30K words to Norton. This will, I assume, change. It hasn´t yet, though.
3) Sales aside, one writes to be read and people go to Amazon for things to read.
4) Publishing is full of cannibals. I don´t know that going elsewhere is all that different.

Or I´m wrong. Your thoughts?

message 9: by Adam (last edited Jun 29, 2012 06:53AM) (new)

Adam Piore | 2 comments Hi Guys,

Sorry I am a little late to the game here. I just wanted to add my two cents on Alan's original question about distrubution.

I published my ebook through the Atavist, which offers it on several distribution platforms in addition to the Kindle Singles story, including in the Apple and Nook stores. About 80 percent of the copies I have sold so far were through Amazon.

So clearly Amazon's distribution -- and especially their targeted access to readers has helped sell it. That may be in part because they also promoed my story on their kindle singles front page for a bit under "page turning narratives."

Also there seems to be an impression among those in the know about kindle singles that the most powerful factor driving sales currently are the unseen promos that Amazon sends out to their readers. If the kindle signles "people" like it, they will push it, and it will sell more copies, I have been told.

I got my story excerpted in Newsweek/Daily Beast and GlobalPost. I wrote a hufington post blog piece in the books section. I got on a BBC-PRI radio show that goes out to 300 radio stations. I got a lot of spikes in sales on amazon after the daily beast excerpt, but I still think the most important factor is amazon's own internal promotion. (at least that is what I am told)

Still, I think some "digital publishers" are already developing a "brand" that may eventually come to be more powerful than the actual "storefront" distributer (like amazon) in reaching readers.

TED, for instance, has started publishing science stories. And the Atavist itself has a growing number of loyal readers. I just read a single by Evan Wright published by the Byliner that absolutely blew my mind. All three of these digital publishers are selective in the stories they choose and are in the process of developing brands and identities. They have good editors (mine at the Atavist was brilliant).

I trust the instincts of the Atavist, because they run great stuff and the editors are very talented. Now I will enthuasiastically embrace stories published by the byliner, because that Evan Wright piece was so good.

Could I have done this story without amazon? Sure. Could I have done it without the Atavist -- probably not. The reason is because they promised to pay me a modest amount regardless of how many copies I sold and then split the proceeds for copies that sold. The amount they guaranteed was enough for me to invest the time -- far below my normal per word rate, but with a much larger potential upside. I have a monthly nut, I have to make a living. Plus I needed to pay for travel.

I could of made the same amount for a shorter magazine piece, but I could never have found a magazine that would have allocated 11,000 words to my story. It had no newshook, and wasn't obviously commercial. And my name as a brand is not sufficient to draw readers to the page -- i am no Malcolm Gladwell.

Then again look at 50 Shadres of Gray. No name fan lit written by amateur. It caught on because it was available and it was something people wanted. I don't think it had anything to do with a sheen or respectability bestowed by any outlet or brand. It was just pure capitlist supply and demand. How many copies has that sold? 300,000? A gazillion?

There's something else worth noting. Evan Wright has two national magazine awards and a bestseller. He's a brand, a draw. But his byliner single "How to Get Away with Murder" must have been more far more than 20,000 words. He basically showed that a hitman for the 1980s cocaine cartel had been recruited by the CIA during Iran-Contra, and risen through the ranks to conceive and head up the post 9-11 assassination policies. It was an incrdible piece of reporting. But it would have been really, really hard to get the real estate to explore this fascinating story in this depth in a magazine.

In terms of whether I have any problems publishing through Amazon, I guess I'm cynical. But that seems like an awfully idealistic and naive question. I feel lucky to make my living as a writer. Adapt or die.

message 10: by Adam (new)

Adam Piore | 2 comments Sari,
I agree that Amazon is a ruthless, corporate beast and it has put some of my favorite bookstores out of business. I can definately see why you would feel conflicted. My word choice was poor. But I still say change or die.

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